Loose Pass

Date published: September 11 2012


This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the British and Irish Lions and the Rugby Championship…

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Lions and the Rugby Championship…

So the rugby world's worst-kept secret is out: Warren Gatland will lead the British and Irish Lions to Australia. Twelve years on from Graham Henry's somewhat rollicking tour, another Kiwi will add his personal love of beating the Wallabies to the Lions' mix.

Was there anyone else? Despite Andy Irvine's insistence to the contrary, probably not. Neither Declan Kidney nor Andy Robinson have excelled enough in their roles to warrant lengthy consideration, while Stuart Lancaster is way too green. From club level, you might have been tempted to look at the coaching staffs of Munster, Leinster, Harlequins and Saracens, but otherwise there's not much around.

After the Henry tour, marked by some apparent internal personality and culture clashes, a lot said “never again a non-B&I person.” But Gatland, with a long track record in Ireland, England and Wales, comfortably transcends that border.

It's going to be an interesting tour though. Gatland is known for having a titanium-clad streak of stubbornness within, belied by an easy-going nature in general. Obviously the Welsh have bought in, but it will be interesting to see if, as on Henry's tour, it takes time for the non-Welsh in the squad to buy in in the same way the Welsh have.

That stubborn nature is going to be tested to the full when it comes to France. The opening salvos have already been fired in Toulon, with Bernard Laporte issuing hands-off instructions over Gethin Jenkins. Others will surely follow despite Gatland's goodwill tour which has already secured the services of one J.Wilkinson.

And that point is now where the questions start for real. Who, what, and how will these B&I Lions go about their business? Are we looking at a classic tour, full of goodwill and enterprise like the last one (which Gatland was on and contributed to hugely)? Or with the calendar eating into preparation time and the cash-rich sponsors queuing up, with an extra match on the tour in Hong Kong and a crowded schedule on the tour itself, could we end up having a hyper-professional, exclusive 'untouchables' tour like Sir Clive Woodward's? Will the Lions knit under Gatland as they did under Geech or will the tribes start squabbling as they appeared to do under Henry?

That will all be answered next June. In the meantime, the Lionswatch for players begins here. And as is our wont – and no doubt with you guys ready with sharpened hatchets in anticipation of all our 'wrong' choices – we'll kick off the fun with our projected starting XV, based on a blend of form and experience, perhaps a little flexibility, and with a dash of good old intuition and hunch in there. Let the catcalling begin….

15 Rob Kearney, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 BOD, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Paul O'Connell, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
16 Rory Best, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Donncha O'Callaghan, 19 David Denton, 20 Ben Youngs, 21 Toby Flood, 22 Leigh Halfpenny.

If you had to put money on it, would you bet against Argentina when they welcome Australia to La Plata in three weeks' time?

A win against South Africa does little to paper over the cracks in this Wallaby side. They still look as though they are playing to a game-plan that is beyond them, especially while their leading players continue to drop like flies. Patience is always a watchword, but the shapelessness of the team at times must be a cause for concern.

The captain's armband has become something of a jinx down under. Horwill, Pocock and now Will Genia are all done for the year. Nathan Sharpe, stalwart leader of teams in adversity, is the logical interim choice, but he is sadly beginning to show a little of his age.

We'll see how they cope. At home this weekend you'd back the Wallabies to win. Yet they will find no let-up in the pressure from an Argentinean team that has now moved well beyond just finding feet on the big stage.

That was worth a mention. But if you are going to use the word shapeless, you'd now have to haul up the Springboks as the benchmark for that particular adjective.

They were awful. Jean de Villiers is running as though he has the world on his shoulders. Zane Kirchner offers absolutely nothing. Morne Steyn has been exposed over and over again. Up front, the Boks are discovering that it simply isn't enough to be an angry behemoth any more, that you need a little culture in your play. Jannie du Plessis is becoming a disciplinary liability, and the back row just doesn't seem to know how to help teams link.

But the most worrying aspect might be the behaviour of Eben Etzebeth. His ridiculous actions against Nathan Sharpe – an attempted headbutt at worst, a puerile act of childish intimidation at best – is an epitome of precisely the kind of indiscipline that pervades the current SA set-up. That Heyneke Meyer is considering a recall to Bakkies Botha, no stranger to a twitchy set of neck muscles himself, is a sure-fire sign that nobody in the leadership really knows where to go next.

But the Boks have to go for broke. The inevitable furore over any future defeats will be tempered by attempts to move on from the past and get the new generation up to speed. Right now, just calling back the old guard and attempting to win with yesterday's rugby will appease nobody.

Over-conservative, slow, shapeless. That's the Boks right now. Heyneke Meyer now has a lot more people to win over.

But here's a question: which team has played the most innovative, 'punch above their weight' rugby the past four years in SA? Why, the Cheetahs of course… consistently challenging the best with half the resources. Is it possible, as someone said in private the other day, that South Africa might have missed a trick by not looking to the coaching talents in Bloemfontein?

Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson